Trio Mediaeval: A Worcester Ladymass (ECM New Series 2166)

A Worcester Ladymass

Trio Mediaeval
A Worcester Ladymass

Anna Maria Friman voice
Linn Andrea Fuglseth voice
Torunn Østrem Ossum voice
Recorded February 2010, Propstei St. Gerold
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Produced by Manfred Eicher

It’s astonishing to reflect on the breadth that Oslo’s Trio Mediaeval has represented in just four albums. From sacred choral music of the 14th and 15th centuries to the more contemporary yet kindred writing of Ivan Moody, Sungji Hong, and Gavin Bryars, not to mention a visceral account of Norwegian folk songs, sopranos Anna Maria Friman, Linn Andrea Fuglseth, and Torunn Østrem Ossum have, since their 1997 debut, been at the forefront of a style of vocal blending that also distinguishes the Hilliard Ensemble, under whom they studied to bring out the finest of their abilities.

(Photo: CF-Wesenberg)

For this, their fifth ECM New Series album, they return to their namesake with a 13th-century Mass to the Virgin Mary, reconstructed from manuscripts found in a Benedictine Abbey in the English Midlands. When looking through the Worcester fragments—which survived Henry VIII’s purging sweep in the 1530s only because they were used to bind other codices—the singers found no Credo, and so commissioned Bryars to rectify their absence by contributing one, along with a Benedicamus Domino. As Friman further notes, today interpretation of music from the middle ages is at the whim of the performer and can be far removed from the religious bonds of its genesis. She and her cohorts embrace this severance wholeheartedly as a path to fresh performance, producing music not meant for concert audiences that breathes with its own flair (if not flare).

From the lilting cadence of the opening Salve sancta parens, it is clear that Trio Mediaeval has sculpted a sound-world all its own. In so gathering their winds together, the singers spin a theme for the ages that is at once entrenched in and severed from time. Most significantly, theirs is a space that listeners can inhabit. As two voices lock into a drone for the plainsong of a third, we can already sense the depth of technical achievement required to produce such seamless atmospheres. It is in this respect that A Worcester Ladymass stands out: in these three throats its technical attentions become, like those of the Hilliards, a fully embodied practice. One notices this in the meticulous pacing throughout. Striking enviable balance between interruption and pause, the gaps between phrases are neither contrived nor jarring. This is especially true of the Munda Maria, a vocal round that cleanses us from the inside. In such cyclical pieces as this and the Gloria, our three angels enact a Derridean sort of reiteration—which is to say, not mere repetition but rather a constant reformation of context. The same holds true of the Bryars Credo, which places a gentle stopper on the clock hands of their art, spinning one hand backward and the other forward. And while Byrars does craft a slightly dissonant edge, his changes are no less unexpected than, say, those in the Grata iuvencula of eight centuries ago.

Another remarkable feature is the fluid extension of syllables in the O sponsa Dei electa and the De supernis sedibus. Without falling into these open-mouthed traps, the Trio draws from them new webs of meaning. The brief addition of organ in the Benedicta / Virgo Dei genitrix and Agnus Dei only intensifies the celestial nature of those connecting lines. All of this makes the shorter pieces stand out in greater relief. Together, they form a sonic rondelle, which is illuminated by the light of the Mass interspersed among them. Much of that light is centered in the holy Sanctus. It serves the text as one might pray: kneeling and alone.

A Worcester Ladymass brings me back to the many early music recordings that enticed me as a novice listener. It finds its essence not in consolidation but through fragmentation, so that each section becomes a votive service unto itself. If the transcendence of the Sponsa rectoris omnium can be said to be representative of the whole, it communicates with an intuitive awareness of temporality that hovers in midair, not quite of heaven or of earth. For ages philosophers have tried to espouse the arbitrariness of the sign, but music such as this proves that the sign is life itself.

(To hear samples from A Worcester Ladymass, click here.)

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